After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?

Now that Pabst Blue Ribbon is mainstream, the beer has lost some of its authentic, cheap no-frills appeal. The assumption is that another beer will take its place, but there are reasons why the "next PBR" might never come

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The Pabst Blue Ribbon booth during the 28th annual Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on March 21, 2013

Pabst Blue Ribbon, the so-called nectar of the hipster gods, has been hip for longer than anyone could have possibly imagined. Now that PBR’s popularity is mainstream and the beer has lost some of its authentic, cheap no-frills appeal, the assumption is that another beverage will take its place as the top hipster brew. But there are reasons why the “next PBR” might never come.

The research firm Restaurant Sciences recently released data indicating that not only had Pabst Blue Ribbon prices in bars and restaurants risen substantially — up over 10% from April 2012 to April 2013 — but that the entire category of cheap “subpremium” beer had gotten more expensive because of PBR. “I believe the single biggest driver in subpremium-beer-price increases is indeed specifically PBR,” Chuck Ellis, Restaurant Sciences president, told the Daily News. “It has become quite fashionable.”

Tons of publications jumped on the study and issued hipster-bashing headlines, usually to the effect of how PBR-loving hipsters “ruin everything,” even cheap beer. But wait a sec. PBR didn’t just become hip recently. It’s been years, in fact, since PBR emerged as the beer of choice of the bearded, Brooklyn-focused masses. In the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote of hipsters embracing PBR thanks to its nonmarketing marketing back in the early 2000s. Why would PBR prices be only spiking just now?

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Well, it’s not clear Pabst’s recent price hike is much of an anomaly at all. Restaurant Sciences only has data for a little over a year, so there’s no way of telling if the latest price increase is unusual, or just part of a years-in-the-making trend. The recession gave inexpensive PBR an extra boost with budget-conscious drinkers, and its popularity allowed the company to increase prices in 2009. Ad Age noted that in 2011 beer manufacturers raised the prices of several subpremium brands like Keystone Light mainly in order to help push consumers into trading up to slightly pricier, supposedly tastier brews like Bud and Coors.

So there’s nothing particularly new about rising beer prices, even at the subpremium level. Also, while Restaurant Sciences data focuses on the price increases as percentages, it’s easy to see that the figures don’t add up to big cash in terms of your bar tab. A 10% price increase sounds like a lot, but when we’re talking about a PBR draft that costs $2.50, that amounts to a bump of just 25¢. That $2.75 PBR is still way cheaper than the typical $5 or $6 craft pint. And none of those prices are as nonsensical as the absurd $10 or $11 charged for Bud Light in certain Manhattan “whale” restaurants.

In any event, as PBR has grown incrementally more expensive and increasingly mainstream, it’s been assumed that the beer will inevitably lose its hipster following. “No product stays hip forever, and at seven years old, the Pabst boomlet is reaching a generational breaking point.” That’s a quote from a post — published in 2008. In 2011, the Pabst Brewing Co. and its portfolio of working-class beers were sold and the headquarters shifted from the Midwest to Southern California, of all places. Many thought that the people drinking PBR “because it is unsexy, unpretentious and blue-collar Midwest,” in the words of the Chicago Tribune, would turn away from old-school brew now that it was perceived as a sellout.

And yet here we are, in 2013, discussing how PBR’s popularity is responsible for pricing shifts throughout the entire beer industry, even as the craft-brewer movement continues to explode — and has changed the beer marketplace far more than Pabst.

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So why the fascination with PBR? And considering that hipsters shun the mainstream, why haven’t they turned their tastes elsewhere? Some would argue that some hipsters have, in fact, done just that. Several PBR sister brands — Old Style, Lone Star, National Bohemian — are often in the discussion concerning the “next PBR.” So are a few brews from the world’s largest beer companies, including Natural Light, Hamm’s and Miller High Life. Then there are regional beers such as Genesee, Narragansett and Yuengling; they’re all relatively cheap brews, and they’ve all been mentioned by beer-industry experts as hipster favorites and potential contenders for PBR’s crown.

Despite the fact that hipsters seem willing to pay top dollar for things like artisanal mayonnaise, cheap price is essential for any hipster beer, says Rene Reinsberg, the founder and CEO of the menu-advisory company Locu. In March, Locu published heat maps of hipster neighborhoods revealing the availability of PBR in bars and restaurants. “Cheap signifies underdog,” Reinsberg says. “The underdog thing is important to this audience. If a beer is expensive, it doesn’t fit the story. Hipsters are into adopting the underdog.”

Such criteria would seem to rule out the possibility of a small craft brewer from becoming the next big hipster success story. Don’t count craft out, though, says Restaurant Sciences’ Ellis. “My own theory is that there’s been such intense competition at the high-craft end, there is bound to be a fierce battle for the low end,” he says. “There are so many craft brewers out there, and they’re all trying to break through. There could be someone willing to trade volume for price.”

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Another wholly unscientific factor in a beer’s rise in popularity could be its nickname. It seems to help a beer’s street cred to have a code name or sorts, perhaps so the “in the know” crowd knows how to order at the bar, and how to recognize fellow enthusiasts. Pabst Blue Ribbon, of course, is shortened into PBR. Natty Boh (National Bohemian), UC (Utica Club), Natty Light, Genny and ’Gansett are a few of the others.

Speaking of ’Gansett, the Rhode Island beer appears to be one of the most overt in its pursuit of the hipster drinking crowd. The brand had been dead for a decade before new owners took over in 2005, a time that just so happened to coincidence with PBR’s rise. Since then, Narragansett has kept retail prices low — around $4.99 for a six-pack of 16-ouncers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — while making other efforts to appeal to hipsters. Last summer, for instance, the company released retro “Crush It Like Quint” cans, named in honor of the memorable character who drank Narragansett (and crushed the can) in Jaws. The company website also features a “’Gansett Girl of the Week,” who, in addition to enjoying the beer, is usually an enthusiast of some hipster activity like roller derby.

Mark Davidson, one of the founders of the beer-price-tracking site, says Narragansett’s active targeting of hipsters could backfire. “You can’t set out to be the beer of choice for a counterculture,” he explained via e-mail. “Just like you can’t set out to make a viral video.”

Davidson says it is silly for hipsters to think they are “fighting the power” by drinking PBR, which is actually brewed by one of the world’s largest beer companies, but it’s equally silly for any company to try to advertise in a traditional way to this group of consumers, who in their minds “don’t want to bend to the will of corporate masters telling them what to drink.”

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Davidson isn’t sold on any current beer as a replacement for PBR, or even on the concept that there will ever be another success story like Pabst over the past decade. “Maybe it’ll never happen again. Maybe the next wave will really be into whole milk and label the people who drink 2% as ‘slaves to the corporate teat,'” he joked.

What he does know is that beer drinkers are a “predominantly male” group that tends to “spend more time indoors, are less physically active, play more video games, spend more time on their smartphones, are enamored with smarts over looks and tend to be more cynical about their future and the future of the planet.” And what beer will most appeal to them? “One that hasn’t been invented yet,” said Davidson. “But I bet a room of savvy marketers somewhere is thinking the exact same thing.”